Non-profit boards, agencies, churches and school systems all have their hooks baited to reel in the newly retired as volunteers. Who can blame them? Often we have time, money, a social conscience, and are used to…well, working. Right now I could be helping in the search for an executive director, assisting in a mentoring program, tutoring at-risk youth, or fundraising for a multi-service nonprofit. I’m not doing any of these things because I said no, but I could be.
My advice to people who are newly retired and being recruited to save whales, children, the arts, historic properties, and the homeless, or to raise money to protect hearts, lungs, kidneys and other organs, is to take it slowly. Many who preceded me into this phase of life gave me the same advice and they were right. If you’re not careful, before you know it your calendar will look like someone used it for target practice, with nearly every day obliterated, in my case, by a weapon of Muse destruction.
I’m qualified to give this warning, because like many of you, I have trouble saying no, but I’m improving through practice. New projects energize me, as does meeting new people and testing whether I can satisfy a new challenge. Most requests that have come my way have sounded like fun. But I know that for me saying yes is often a mistake. I have limited my choices of volunteer “opportunities” to two, one that delights me and one that I find reasonably satisfying.
Another piece of advice from experience is that, after trying a volunteer assignment for a while, you can quit, or if you want to tweak it you can probably do so without getting fired. And if you get fired? No worries. Your résumé padding days are over, and there are many other non-profits drooling over the chance to bring you into their communities.
This school year I figured out that I could adapt my last year’s volunteer English as a Second Language teaching job to be more personally rewarding as well as more beneficial to my students. Instead of teaching a curriculum focused on grammar, reading and writing, I am facilitating Talk Time groups, 90 minutes of pure listening and conversation. My students are adults who sincerely want to learn English and who feel most stressed when they can’t understand someone on the telephone, don’t know what to say when they first meet their neighbors, or aren’t sure how to interact with their child’s teachers. We practice talking to a Comcast representative about a cable installation problem, and using “small talk” with a new acquaintance, while also learning not to ask others older than us their age, or what religion they profess. My other volunteer job is to help carry out a communication/marketing plan I developed for my church, an assignment too much like my former job to qualify as thrilling, but since it’s not a school it offers a new twist, a new challenge and, best of all, no TV interviews. I hope by limiting myself two volunteer activities, I will have time to focus on my biggest goal of writing.
One last counsel: sometimes, even as we’re learning to say no and saving our energies for volunteer roles that excite us, we may still need to step up and say yes to a job because it needs doing and we’re the best ones to do it.